A House committee discussion over an omnibus alcohol bill amounted to yet another debate involving people wanting to free regulations on spirituous liquor and those wanting to tighten the state’s stranglehold.

House Bill 890, after an hour-long discussion Monday, May 10, moved out of the House Alcoholic Beverage Control Committee and on to the Rules Committee. A budget-related amendment in the ABC Committee ensured that the bill would not have to meet this week’s legislative crossover deadline. The content of the bill when, and if, it makes it to the House floor is anyone’s guess.

No issue before N.C. lawmakers is more divisive than how the state regulates spirituous liquor. Debate over this bill, like others before it loosening ABC rules, will be no different, each contingent effectively daring the other to blink.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Tim Moffitt, R-Henderson, is all-encompassing, incorporating some measures that have already cleared one chamber of the General Assembly. It would allow people to order online and pick products up from state ABC stores, expand the size of growlers from two liters to four, loosen rules for tours in N.C. distilleries, and allow distillers to sell their products at festivals.

Maybe most important — and also probably the biggest point of contention — is a provision in the bill that levels the proverbial playing field, allowing distilleries to operate like their beer and wine counterparts, apart from ABC control regarding hours of operation. As it stands, distilleries can’t open if a local ABC is not open.

This bill removes that draconian provision, allowing distilleries to offer tours, tastings, and cocktails from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m., although to think a distiller would hold such hours isn’t realistic. The bill would also establish a spirituous liquor council, basically a distillers’ version of the N.C. Wine and Grape Council.

Rep. Pat Hurley, R-Randolph, is a consistent critic of legislative efforts to ease restrictions on alcohol. She proposed a pair of amendments that would have eliminated large swaths from the bill. Both failed. Another amendment, a common-sense measure that clarifies language for people who buy liquor, was approved.

“I wish I could do the whole bill,” Hurley said in referring to complete removal of H.B. 890.

Moffitt said, “I would ask that the committee trust us in our endeavors to get this right.” 

The biggest flashpoint came during talk of operating hours for distilleries.

Pete Barger is president of the Distillers Association of North Carolina. He is an owner of Southern Distilling Co. in Statesville, one of some 90 licensed distilleries in North Carolina. He told lawmakers his distillery, and those like his, are private businesses, built and operated by entrepreneurs trying to grow their businesses and to succeed. The ability to operate on a timeline like those of breweries and wineries is critical to meeting those goals, even as, Barger said, most N.C. distillers support the ABC system.

“Distillers in North Carolina …  I’m not aware of anyone who is interested in operating as if they were a bar,” he said. 

Rather, it’s a question of tourism, especially as that relates to Sundays, which comprise half of a typical weekend.

“We don’t think it’s appropriate that we are limited because the ABC store isn’t open,” Barger said. “It’s just that simple.”

State rules that disallow Sunday sales, he said, are “a big hit to us, and, I think, it’s a big hit to the state.”

It’s less about consumption, Barger said, and more about opportunity. He said his distillery goes through about 40,000 pounds of N.C.-produced grain daily. He assured lawmakers the distillers would be great partners toward ensuring people consume alcohol in a responsible way.

Another consistent opponent of alcohol, the Rev. Mark Creech of the Christian Action League, called the measure too aggressive. He said lawmakers — as well as constituents — have had little time to vet the proposed bill. He wants it held over to the next biennium.

“We just don’t have enough facts yet,” Creech told lawmakers. “This is privatization light, and we’re not ready for that.”